Sceptical denial

I’ve followed the Paranormalia blog for a while now and whilst I’m not convinced by the claims of the paranormal I’ve found the blog interesting and thought provoking, and the debate that sometimes ensues can be lively. Paranormalia’s examination of the paranormal literature makes it unique and a great place to discover not just the work going going on in the field, it also provides an insight into the thought processes of those interested in the paranormal and a forum to engage with them.

The blog’s host, Robert McLuhan, is incredibly knowledgeable and his output formidable. He often comes to conclusions I strongly disagree with, partly because I think they are based upon flawed logic and lack of quality evidence and partly because of his misunderstanding of scepticism and regular misrepresentation of sceptics. Saying that, he is always polite and articulate, and most of the below the line comments follow his example.

If you’re interested in the paranormal and supernatural, I highly recommend you follow Paranormalia.

Last night McLuhan laid out an interesting and challenging argument suggesting that a comparison can be made between climate change denial and scepticism of psychic phenomena, which I think is false. I usually stay out of the debates, but I thought the introduction of the word denial was a huge fallacy in this context and needed challenging as such loaded terms can needlessly polarise positions.

Below is a copy of my reply:

Denial in these terms can indeed be a loaded word, and one too readily used try to discredit opponents (case in point the emotive language above of ‘The Neuroscientist’) by poisoning the well, but I think in the case of evolution and climate change, it is an accurate description.

Refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming weight of evidence, repeated experiment and the constant challenge of peer review of scientific theories – could you get a better definition than denier? If anything, the constant challenging of theories and their evidence means that science can be considered as a formalised scepticism, and a method which has proven to be (mostly) successful.

When it comes to psi, describing sceptics as deniers is unfair and way off the mark. Most sceptics only apply the same rules and expectations to psi research (or other supernatural or pseudo-scientific theories) as they would to any other proposition. Unless you have an objective set of rules untainted by emotion and intuition by which to measure the evidence put before you, you risk becoming victim to bias and ultimately irrational and possibly dangerous conclusions.

It’s this method and an expectation by sceptics that psi researchers apply the same standards to their work which seems to annoy a lot of psi supporters, as if psi somehow exists in a special realm where the scientific method doesn’t apply.

The conclusion is that the suggestion above the line (and in the above comments), that psi sceptics are ‘deniers’ in the category of those rejecting climate change and evolution, is wildly inaccurate. I would even suggest that there is a false dichotomy being constructed here as I don’t think that the psi researchers are ‘deniers’ either, but obviously the burden is on them to prove their propositions, and that’s all that sceptics (and science) are asking for.


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